There’s always a second chance and a comeback story, and with Capcom now fully restored as everyone’s favourite Japanese developer, Konami too has begun its journey of redemption.
There were a string of questionable moves and errors made by the company over the last few years which included: 1) games being cancelled (Silent Hills), 2) key developers and producers being managed out (Hideo Kojima), 3) major IP sequels not meeting the standard (Metal Gear Survive), and 3) seminal franchises being outright shelved (Castlevania, Gradius, Suikoden, to name a few) in favour of safer options like Pro Evolution Soccer and… pachinko? It’s certainly no secret that Konami lost a lot of its prestige in recent years, but still, for a company which has existed for five decades and counting it will always have enough legs to remedy their image. The process of rebuilding and rebranding starts with reminding everyone of the glorious past, and the trilogy of anniversary collections which included Arcade Classics, Castlevania, and now Contra, is the right way to go about.
Contra might arguably be Konami’s greatest action IP second only to Metal Gear, and not since the hidden classic Hard Corps: Uprising (2011) has the franchise seen any major release aside from watered down mobile spin-offs and pachinko machines. This is now rectified with the surprise E3 2019 release of Contra Anniversary Collection, which was accompanied by the announcement of the next canonical entry in Contra: Rogue Corps. This long overdue sequel looks highly stylised and entertaining, giving the series a new personality facelift and should be a great way to bring old fans and newcomers. It’s great to see Rogue Corps realised after MercurySteam’s fabled Contra reboot, which got cancelled after the commercial and critical failure of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. An interesting bit of trivia, the ideas and assets of this supposed Contra reboot found a home in MercurySteam’s own Spacelords – don’t get too excited though, it’s not even close to a good game.
Contra Anniversary Collection for now marks the trifecta of the anniversary trilogy unless Konami (hopefully) announces more. As welcome and enjoyable as Arcade Classics Anniversary Collection and Castlevania Anniversary Collection were, this is unquestionably the best of the three. While the other two collections featured the important games, the curation of Contra Anniversary Collection is virtually perfect as all the games featured are the absolute best of the best in the series. It’s easy to complain about what’s not in a retro collection than appreciate what’s actually in it, but in the case of Contra Anniversary Collection it is unreasonable to fault the collection, even for not including games like Contra 4 (a solid but derivative effort from WayForward) or Contra: Shattered Soldier which was an excellent game worthy of its own HD remaster someday.
Contra Anniversary Collection has the NES originals which most of us in our thirties would have played in childhood, and surprisingly both the original Contra and Super C hold up remarkably well. Accompanying the more widely played NES editions are the arcade originals, and interestingly the NES games play a lot better than the graphically superior arcade games. Contra has a certain jumping animation and mechanic which has become iconic and unchanged throughout the series’ history, and what’s interesting is that in the original arcade game this jump mechanic had a very different look and feel, opting for realism. Due to the limitations of the NES, a practical compromise was made which actually ended up becoming an improvement. Sure, it’s weird seeing a soldier roll like they were Sonic the Hedgehog, but from a mechanical and hitbox standpoint it actually ended up improving the gameplay in a drastic way. Compare and see for yourself.
At this stage some retro games are historical curiosities at best, this is particularly the case with monochrome GameBoy games which have cumbersome framerates and restricted controls. Castlevania Anniversary Collection has a few GameBoy titles which aren’t a lot of fun to play, but in the case of Contra: Operation C it is surprisingly the opposite. For one thing it is interesting to play a GameBoy title full-screen on your HD powered Xbox, but even more surprising is how good Operation C is as a game. The control is responsive and effective, and above all the level design has an organic progression about it with plenty of fun sequences and set-pieces. Give it a chance, you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised.
The two heavyweights, which still remain among the best video games even to this day, are Contra III: The Alien Wars and Contra: Hard Corps. In Castlevania Anniversary Collection, we got to relive the classic SNES vs Mega Drive rivalry by pitting Castlevania IV (SNES) against Castlevania: Bloodlines (Mega Drive). Now in Contra Anniversary Collection, we witness Contra III (SNES) pitted against Hard Corps (Mega Drive). As for which game is better, there can never be an answer to this question but one thing’s for sure: they’re both utterly brilliant exemplars of 2D action games. Contra III and Hard Corps are great games for entirely different reasons, and both have aged like wine better than even the aforementioned Castlevania games. These games pushed their respective hardware to the absolute limits, which is why they still remain visually appealing. Importantly, the mechanical polish and level design ambition still hold up like they were created yesterday.
Contra Anniversary Collection provides alternative regional versions of most of the main games, the most notable being the two Probotector games. Long story short, if you grew up in a country where the spelling is “colour” then chances are you played Probotector instead of Contra. Probotector was simply a visual swap to replace all the humans with robots, but there’s a bit more to it, as these PAL variants originally ran at a slower 50Hz but are now playable in 60Hz (prehistoric television jargon from pre-HD era). They’re fun little curiosities for sure, but not substitutes for the Contra titles already present in the collection.
A free update has added Japanese versions to Contra Anniversary Collection (same for Castlevania and Arcade Classics) and this is the ultimate cherry on an already tasty cake. These Japanese versions are a huge deal because while it’s probably not accurate to say they are “easier” than the Western counterparts, the difficulty curve certainly has a more organic progression by comparison. This changes the gameplay experience entirely, and so if you’re new to Contra you’re better off starting with the Japanese versions for stronger and more sensible game design.
Contra Anniversary Collection on Xbox One comes with similar museum features as the other Konami anniversary collections, which includes a very enjoyable interview with Contra producer, Nobuya Nakazato. Other features include graphical filters and much appreciated difficulty settings for some of the games. Sure, SNK and SEGA have achieved far more in preserving and presenting their vintage catalogue, but Contra Anniversary Collection still succeeds at making these retro action titles super responsive and visually appealing on your Xbox.
When it comes to Konami’s seminal franchises there is no mistake that Contra is perhaps their finest hour, and this latest retro compilation proves this as fact once and for all. Contra Anniversary Collection brings back the most timelessly sublime and pristine 2D action games to modern platforms, just in time for a much deserved and overdue celebration. It is a great way to keep fans occupied while they await the release of the promising Contra: Rogue Corps.